Sermon: Slaying The Giants: Seeing Beyond The Giants
Scripture: selected portions of Numbers 13 and 14
Date: January 20, 2019
I want to begin this morning by sharing with you the story of a young man by the name of Charlie. In 1962, at the age of 18, Charlie had gotten in with the wrong group of people and one night he and his friends got hold of a gun and decided to rob a gas station. Charlie alone was caught and was convicted of armed robbery and was sentenced to 25 years at the state prison. In April of 1987 Charlie had served his full term and was released. Several times in those 25 years he had become eligible for parole and as a model prisoner would have been released, but he had never applied for it. Even when his term was completed, Charlie had not wanted to be released. He was 43 years old, had spent more than half of his life in prison and was frightened by what lay outside of those prison walls. But his term was up and he was released and he found a room in an old hotel in downtown Houston, and determined to make his way in the world, he tried to find a job and adjust to the world outside of prison. But he quickly found that the challenges of life outside were too big for him to overcome and so less than a month after he had been released, Charlie found a gun and went and robbed a convenience store and then sat in the parking lot and waited for the police to come. He plead guilty to armed robbery and was sentenced to another 25 year term in the state prison. Once again Charlie did nothing towards being released on Parole and though his term should have been up in 2012, Charlie remains in prison. He learned that if he occasionally acted up in prison that instead of his time being reduced, more time would be added to his sentence. It is Charlie’s intention, to live out his life in prison, because after more than fifty years, the challenges of the world beyond the prison walls are just too big for him to face. Charlie’s story is a tragic one, but not all that unusual. There are many persons who spend a great deal of their lives behind bars because the prospect of living outside in the world is just too overwhelming for them to comprehend. And so when faced with those challenges, they choose to go back. And so like Charlie they repeat their crimes so they will be sent back to prison. Because as bad as prison life is, it is all they know. And they are afraid to face the unknown.
And you know, I suspect that for many of us, Charlie’s story is not that far removed from our own. Not in his prison experience. But in his desire to stay with what is known, rather than face the unknown. Often times our fear of the unknown can be so overwhelming that we would rather go back to what we have known, no matter how bad that might be, rather than step into an unknown, unfamiliar future. It is often our fear of the unknown, of what lies ahead, which keeps us from boldly moving into the future that God has planned for us.
Which brings us to this story from the book of Numbers. It is supposed to be really the completion of the story of the Exodus, because after wandering in the Wilderness for an unspecified period of time, the Hebrew people had finally arrived at their destination. So let’s review for a moment. The story of the Exodus begins with the people of God, enslaved for hundreds of years in Egypt and they have grown in numbers to the point that they make up the largest part of the Egyptian workforce. Some say they numbered in the millions. But God has heard their cries of misery, and their pleas to be free from their bondage. So God comes to Moses, who though born a Hebrew had been raised in the Pharaoh’s court. He had been stripped of his privileges and banished into the wilderness when in his effort to protect one of the Hebrew slaves’ he killed an Egyptian overseer. Now living as a shepherd, God called him to go and confront the Egyptian Pharaoh, and demand that he let the Hebrew slaves go. And after some convincing, the Pharaoh agrees. And so the Hebrews pack up their belongings and even some gifts from the Egyptians, and they set out toward their homeland. But the way is not as easy as they hoped. First the Pharaoh changes his mind and sends his army to capture them and bring them back. And when hearing that the army is pursuing them, and they are trapped between the sea and the army, there were some of the Hebrews who advocated that they surrender and return to captivity rather than be killed in the wilderness. But God opens the sea for them to pass through and then closes it back over the Pharaoh’s army. And Moses leads them into the wilderness. The journey is hard and many times nearly overwhelms the people. But whenever they come to seemingly insurmountable obstacles, God provides. When they are hungry God provides bread and quail for them to eat. When they are thirsty, He makes water flow from the rock. When they are lost, He comes as a pillar of cloud by day and fire by night for them to follow. God provides for their every need, but the people have short memories and so every time they come up against a new obstacle, they begin to grumble. I had an Old Testament professor in seminary who labeled this tendency on the part of the people of the Exodus as the “Grumbling Motif” and he said you could trace this grumbling motif throughout the story of the Exodus, but more than that throughout the Old Testament. And every time the people gave in to despair, their cry would be “let’s go back to Egypt because as bad as it was there, at least we knew what to expect.” In Jesus’ time, the pharisees and priests were infected with the grumbling motif. They rejected Jesus because he challenged the established faith. And when Jesus spoke of a New Covenant, it was more than they could face, and so rather than move into the unknown, they put Jesus to death. Let’s go back to what we have known. And though the Bible doesn’t say it, I suspect that every time the people started to grumble and complain that there were some who did turn back, rather than follow God and Moses into the unknown.
And so we pick up the story this morning with the people on the edge of the land. But even then they stared ahead into that which was unknown to them. They had spent many generations in Egypt. There was no one in that great throng of people who had ever set foot in the promised land. All they had were the stories of how it had been before the famine had forced their ancestors to flee to Egypt where there was food to eat. And so the land beyond the river was unknown territory. And they hesitated to cross over, not knowing what to expect. That’s where we pick up the story this morning. It goes like this. (Read From Numbers 13 and 14)
When faced with the giants, the people forget and they start to grumble. They forget that God had defeated the Pharaoh on their behalf. They forget that God had saved them from starvation by making food rain down from heaven for them, and thirst by making water flow in abundance from the rocks of the desert. And they forget that He had never abandoned them night or day, leading them as a pillar of fire in the dark and a pillar of cloud by day. Never mind all of that, because there are giants up ahead that we can’t possibly overcome. God is calling them into the unknown and they began to grumble. We need to go back to Egypt. And if Moses won’t lead us back we need to pick a new leader who will.” Because you see, when the going gets tough, when the giants loom ahead, when we stare into the unknown, it is often human nature to want to go back. And we start to grumble.
And lest we be too hard on the Hebrews, we need to acknowledge that giants can be formidable obstacles. But you know, the more I study the people of the Exodus, who wandered and eventually died in the wilderness, it is clear to me that the real giants for the people of the Exodus were not those that lay in front or behind for that matter. The real giants were those that lay within them. Their fear and lack of faith became like a virus, infecting their soul and made them want to turn back, and eventually they all died in the wilderness. Most often in our faith journey, it’s not the giants that lie ahead, and there will be those for all of us, that defeat us, but rather it’s the giants that lie within. The giants of fear and doubt and indifference and sin, just to name a few that threaten to turn us back, and defeat us. And it’s not just true for individuals, but churches can be so infected and so rather than move forward into the promised land that God has for us, we often retreat in the face of adversity and the obstacles that threaten our path. God continues to call us forward, but “God, we say, there are giants ahead. What lies before us is too big for us to overcome.”
And so I searched the scriptures for the giants that confronted the people of Israel from within. And the first one I discovered was a weak spiritual foundation. In the next chapter, after the people have made the decision to not confront the unknown giants ahead and instead turn back into the wilderness and toward Egypt, God says to Moses: “How long will the people despise Me? How long will they continue to not believe in Me in spite of all the signs, all that I have done for them?” Now despise is a very strong word to use. But I think Jesus makes an equally strong statement when He tells His disciples: “If you’re not for me, you’re against me.” When we come up against giants in our faith journey, they often cause us to question the very foundations of our faith. Who are we for? God or ourselves? You see, the fear of the giants was really a fear that the God who had been faithful, who had led them up to this point, who had provided for their every need, was not big enough to slay these giants. Their spiritual foundation was shaky at best. Jesus talks about the difference between those who build their houses on sand rather than rock. Eventually the house built on sand will fall because the foundation is weak. When I was appointed to the Harrodsburg church, we were struck by how beautiful the parsonage was. It was an old historic home that the church had just finished repairing the brick and mortar and painting and looked great. But then we went inside. And the floors were torn up and they were working on replacing some of the floor joists and repairing the foundation because the house had been infested with termites that had been eating away on the inside, compromising the integrity of the whole structure. The house was beautiful on the outside, but inside the foundation was very shaky. There are times for most of us when though we may look great on the outside, but inside sin and selfishness and pride are eating away- compromising the very foundations of our faith. I suspect that’s what Jesus had in mind when he said of the Pharisees that they were like whitewashed tombs, beautiful on the outside, but inside full of death and decay. And when we saw the problems inside the parsonage our excitement about moving to Harrodsburg was tempered. My first thought was to call the District Superintendent and tell him this wasn’t going to work and that I needed to go back to the Wesley Foundation. The scouts return and say this is a land that looks good from the outside looking in, but on the inside there are giants that are going to keep us from moving forward. Before we can stand up to the giants in our path, we need to make sure that our Foundation is in Christ and is strong enough to stand against whatever might come. Whatever giants stand in our way. Our love for God must be bigger than any giant that can ever threaten our way. If the Hebrews had a solid foundation of faith, then they would have realized that their God was bigger than any giant that they would encounter in the land. But their fear of the giants made them forget what God had done. And they started to grumble. In my personal faith journey, I have often encountered what I thought were giants. And sometimes I have chosen to turn back to what I have known, to where I have been comfortable. But in reflecting now on those times, I have come to know, without exception, that the problem has never been that the giants are too big, but rather my shaky faith foundation has convinced me that my God is too small. Before I can be the giant slayer that God needs me to be, I need to shore up the very foundations of my faith and move boldly forward secure in the knowledge that our God is bigger than any giants that may lay in our path.
And then I think the second giant that caused the Hebrew people to turn back was a lack of a clear purpose or vision. If you read on in this fourteenth chapter, they say just before they decided to go back. “Why does the Lord bring us into this land?” They are a people without a sense of purpose. Why are we here in the first place? In a sense, what they were saying was that before they could answer the question of how they could settle in this land of milk and honey, they needed to answer why God had led them here in the first place. Without vision and purpose, we tend to see only the problems and not the possibilities. Before Abraham said yes to leaving his home to journey to this far off, unknown place, he needed to know why he should do that. Once God laid out the vision and purpose – “I will make of you a great nation with the number of descendants greater than the number of stars in the heavens” Abraham was ready to go. If we understand that God has a purpose for our life, then we have the assurance that no matter what giants may loom ahead, God will see us through. Before we try to figure out how to slay the giants, we need to know why we are going up against them in the first place. What is our purpose? What is our vision? We need to see beyond the giants. The writer of Proverbs may have been talking about this first generation of the Exodus when he said: “Without vision, the people perish”. Our vision gives us purpose. And it also gives us courage. It does no good to have a vision of where God wants us to go, if we don’t have the courage to act upon it. The scouts came back with a clear vision of what the land was. Look what it says: “They brought back word to them and to all the congregation, and showed them the fruit of the land. It is a land which flows with milk and honey. We have seen it’s fruit.” In other words it is all that God promised it would be. It is a glorious vision that He has for us. But they lacked the courage to live into that vision. Faith is never easy. Sometimes it requires that we stand up to the giants and slay them. It requires great courage and sacrifice if we are going to follow God into the promised land. And often God’s vision calls us to see beyond what currently is – to what could be. Because in order to dwell in the promised land, we must first slay the giants that block our way. I believe as we start a new year that God is calling on each one of us to be giant slayers. He does not expect us to face them alone. In Jesus He gives us His presence and His power in order to slay whatever giants may come. In the next couple of weeks I want to think about the giants that are standing in our path both as individuals and a church, and the tools that God gives us in order that we might slay them and move forward.